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The Indian Experience in Trinidad, or The Triumph of Ideology Over Scholarship

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 24, 2013

No one, again with the exception of the extinct Carib people, and perhaps the Spanish people can claim to be 'natives' of the island. All peoples were newcomers to Trinidad, and all were immigrants. The immigrant nature of the society of Trinidad needs to be recognized for what it was and what it is. (537)

GeradTikasingh, Trinidad During the 19th Century

Gerad Tikasingh has written an interesting book, Trinidad During the 19th Century: The Indian Experience, an extension of his doctoral thesis, "The Establishment of Indians in Trinidad, 1870," that he completed at UWI, St Augustine, Trinidad in 1973. Although his book is filled with facts, it is marred by an ideological orientation (one may say Indo-centric perspective) and a negative rendering of the African experience in the country. This book continues an argument made by other Indo-Caribbean scholars that suggests that the dominance of an Afro-centric ethos (which Tikasingh calls a "black bias") has "tended to downplay, if not obscure the parallel Indo-Caribbean experience of indentureship and its contributions to Guyanese and Trinidadian culture in particular" (see Frank Birbalsingh, Indo Caribbean Resistance, 1993).

Trinidad During the 19th Century, a Trinidad version of this thesis, proposes that we see the development of Trinidad's history in terms of waves of immigrants (he names four such periods, 1783-1797; 1797-1807; 1807-1845; 1845-1917) coming into the colony during the 19th century. Since the Indians enjoyed the longest period of immigration (1845 to 1917), he suggests that we stop characterizing Trinidad as a slave society and rename it an indentureship society. "Slavery," he says, "was never a rooted institution in the history of Trinidad. "Tikasingh blandishes this statement throughout his text as if he is not aware that Dr. Eric Williams noted that Trinidad was not a plantation society in 1838. "Rather," he says, "it was a society of small estates operated by a few slaves... The underdevelopment of Trinidad's economy and the relative peaceful relations between slaves and masters was illustrated by the fact that there were three domestic slaves for every ten field slaves as compared with a ratio of under two to ten in Jamaica and one in ten in British Guiana" (History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962). So much for Tikasingh's contention that historians have defined Trinidad as a slave society.

Tikasingh believes that slavery was much too short-lived (it did not last more than two generations) and too mild (as compared with Barbados and Jamaica) to have had a major influence on shaping Trinidad society. According to Tikasingh all we had in Trinidad were "'sulky,' and 'unwilling' and, at times, willfully disobedient [slaves], a behavior that would never have been tolerated in any other place during the 18th century." And what is his evidence for such a characterization? The diaries of Frederick Urich (1830-32), a young German, who lived in Trinidad during the 1830s. All that transpired in the lives of Africans prior to 1830 was irrelevant.

Tikasingh is so intent on decentering the role of African people in the construction of the society that he argues there is no such thing as a native population (it's an arbitrary concept he says), which allows him to deny them any primacy in the development of the society. Yet, he sees no contradiction in asserting that in 1838 there were "some 180 sugar estates in the island cultivating 21,170 acres" which represented "the foundation of Trinidad's economy for much of the island's economic history" which leads to the question, "Who, then, was responsible for creating such a foundation?" It is almost as if to suggest that estates managed themselves and the acreage the planters cultivated determined the evolution of Trinidad in those early years. People, in this equation, were incidental to this process.

And this is one of the central problems of the book. It is rich in facts, poor in analysis, and deficient in discerning the primary factor in the making of a society which, as E. P. Thomson (The Making of the English Working Class) or Walter Rodney (The Making of the Guyanese Working People) suggests, is the working people. In trying to argue for the hegemony of the Indians in making the society he feels honor bound to deny any such claims that have been made on behalf of Africans. Is it not important that from 1797 onwards more than half of Trinidad's population were Africans and most of the colored population willingly defined themselves as "people of African descent?"

In fact, the racial animus that subtends this text tends to distort Tikasingh's thesis. Terms such as "black bias" abound (he uses this phrase eight times in the preface); he constantly makes reference to African slaves, and the word "Negro" comes tripping off his tongue. No one, it seems, ever told Tikasingh that Africans are people who were used as slaves, hence the term "enslaved Africans," and that few scholars use the word "Negro" to define people of African descent. He even argues: "Many in the island became agitated, if not hysterical, about the island's new face. The fear of racial dominance by Indians appeared early and would continue throughout most of the 20th century" (497). He does not bother to offer any evidence to support this assertion or tell us when this attitude began.

However, there are implications for such an approach to his analysis. Tikasingh does not flinch as he writes: "Each sphere of activity in its turn called for further activity: the people and their slaves would need housing" (my emphasis). Such a formulation prevents Tikasingh from seeing enslaved Africans as people and which leads him to conceive them as being "sulkier and emboldened, and in some instances bluntly refusing to obey their masters and then escaping into the high woods to avoid recapture." This is all he can say about the activities of Africans: they refused to obey their masters.

Tikasingh takes quite a different approach when he speaks about Indians and their participation in the society. When the colonial government decides to bring in the first batch of Indians to Trinidad, he argues almost innocently, "There was no idea of using Indian immigrants to supplant other groups of immigrant laborers" (121). However, he seems not to have read Madhavi Kale, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, who argued that the Indians were brought to the Caribbean because they seemed "ideal" to the planters because they were "dependent and coercible, and because they were accessible-'free' to be used to discipline the black laboring population, nearly-emancipated from slavery" (Fragments of Empire, 1998).

Tikasingh is angered that Thomas Hinde, a member of the Port of Spain Town Council and a black man, objected to the colonial government paying over £100,000 to bring Indians into the island which he (Hinde) said was a plan by the planters "to reduce wages and to raise a loan, which itself would mean an increase in taxation to the inhabitants to pay for the new immigrants." Upset by Hinde's objections, Tikasingh asks rhetorically: "So what was so wrong, for Mr. Hinde and the Trinidad Standard, about the possibility of Indian immigration as the latest source for laborers? How can one escape the thought that the objection was based on race, that Indians represented a different ethnic group?" He continues: "When public funds were used to finance the immigration of Negro labourers from the nearby islands during the early period, no one had anything negative to say about the use of public funds... Why, then were different reactions to the use of public funds in financing two different groups of immigrants?"

What Tikasingh fails to tell his readers, in arguing against what he calls Hinde's racist bias, is that as early as 1839 Hinde and his fellow blacks argued against the discrimination of "people of African descent" by the local government. In a letter to the Queen in July 1839, he wrote as follows:

We, your loyal and dutiful subjects of African descent compose of four-fifths of the population of the island of Trinidad, and we have virtually no influence over the legislature of our country, and no share in the making or the execution of the laws, by which we are governed. The principle of the government as regards ourselves, is that of a perfect oligarchy, from which we are excluded. The portion of the Legislative Council selected from the people is approved by the Governor alone, and of six only one is of African descent, recently chosen by the Governor General. Your loyal and dutiful subjects having long suffered under the political degradation and depression, until lately liberated by the generous British Government...

Among seven stipendiary magistrates, one is of African descent. Of our twenty eight municipal magistrates, one is of African descent, but, from being the only one of that description never officiates. In the illustrious Board of Cabildo, consisting of ten persons, four are of African descent; this municipal corporation of Port of Spain founded on the worst principle of the most corrupt British and Irish corporations, from its imbecility and inutility, has been deprived by the executive government of nearly all its privileges, thus throwing still more power and patronage into the possession of the Oligarchy.

One cannot help but ask if Hinde and his colleagues were being racist when they attacked the discriminatory practices of the local white government?

The same upside-down thinking occurs when Tikasingh speaks about squatting by Africans after apprenticeship. He accused Blacks of acting dishonorably and lawless for squatting on Crown Lands that the British had stolen from the Spanish who had stolen it from the Amerindians, but then that's another argument. He argues that the departure of the freed people from the estates meant freedom to go wherever they wished even though it spelled havoc for the planters' operations which suggests that the planters were the only persons worthy of consideration. Blacks were never important. He says: "Ex-apprentices simply withdrew their presence and their labor from the estates and seemed to want to have nothing to do with a type of work and in an environment that was repugnant to them because of their past association with slavery. Despite substantial changes in the reduction of the work week, the workday, or the increase in wages, nothing could induce ex-apprentices to continue to work and remain on the sugar estates for any length of time" (74). Reading this statement, one would have thought that the planters reduced the work week and the work day and raised wages to accommodate the ex-apprentices.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It was the other way around. The ex-slaves simply refused to work six days a week, withdrew their labor from the estates, started to bargain for wages, and opted to do "task work" rather than have the planters dictate what they should do. It was a clear case of the enslaved acting in their best self interest. As a result of their actions, the work week was shortened-they only worked three or four days during the week-the work day was reduced-their task work lasted a few hours a day (generally by noon they were finished working) and, as a result, the wage bill went up. Since the chapter in which this statement occurs is entitled "The Beginnings of Economic Development in Trinidad," one would have thought that Tikasingh would have understood that the behavior of the Africans was in keeping with the economic laws of development. The Africans judiciously sold their labor power to the highest bidder for their services at the highest price they could get.

In the next chapter, "The Coming of the Indians," Tikasingh makes a dubious distinction between the Indians and Africans' response to their servitude. (I am aware that Tikasingh says that slavery and indentureship were not the same thing.) Using Charles Kingsley's At Last (1869) as evidence, he describes the attitude of the Indians towards their indentureship:

The personal bearing of the people he saw was not suggestive of people being weighed down by some sense of doom. Nowhere does he observe the new arrivals with their heads hung low, with sad countenance, looking or behaving miserably, despondently, dejectedly, or disconsolately" [that is, after a journey of 5,000 miles into nowhere]... Where were the shuffling feet, heads hung low, and faces filled with dread of what was to come that one finds in description of African slaves?...

One just had to recall the persistent and tearful, grieving, groaning, dejected behavior and look of new slave arrivals, whether in Portugal or Barbados or anywhere else on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, to note the wide chasm between new slave arrivals and new indenture arrivals to realize that indentured immigrants did not behave in a similar manner (195-96).

And where does he go for his evidence? He goes to Portugal in 1441. He opines:

In August 1444 [this is not a typo], one Portuguese contemporary, Gomes Eannes de Zurara, observed the new slave arrivals in Lagos, Portugal... Those African slaves [not enslaved Africans] hung their heads low,their faces in tears, groaning, and looking dejectedly on each other. By contrast, the description of newly arrived Indian immigrants on Nelson Island [Trinidad] in 1870 was very different, a world apart, not only in terms of geography and time, but also in terms of psychology (196).

I wonder if it ever occurred to Tikasingh how inappropriate this analogy is. After all, one is comparing the behavior of people of 1444 with those of people in 1869, some four hundred and twenty-seven years apart. Presumably, he sees nothing wrong with this comparison.

Tikasingh is effusive in his praises for John Morton and the Canadian Indian Mission. He condemns the local authorities for not being interested in educating Indian children until Morton arrived in the island in 1868. While he tells us a lot about the efforts of the latter body to educate the Indians, he does not tell his readers what the Hindus, the Muslims, and the Africans were doing to educate their children. Such a jaundiced view allows him to argue that in 1891, "less than one-third of the school-aged Indian population was attending school, compared with 83.3 % of school-aged Negro population who were in school." It is difficult to accept the accuracy of this statement since free primary school education was not introduced into the island until 1900 which meant that up until then many school-aged Africans were unable to go to school because they did not have the money to educate their children as was the case of my grandmother, Moriah Bonas. It is true that the Canadian Mission did a good job in evangelizing and educating the Indians of the island. It does not mean that African parents were not doing the same thing for their children.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all comes at the end of the book when Tikasingh observes: "With their savings, they [the Indians] purchased lands and they became landholders in their own right. Law abiding and honorable, they did not squat on Crown lands." And here is the irony (or the racism) of such a statement. Africans are brought to the island against their will. Slavery ends. They occupy Crown lands which the British Crown took from the Spanish by force. Tikasingh argues that Africans acted "dishonorable" and broke the law because they took the only course open to them: to occupy land that lay in abundance. Nowhere in Tikasingh's telling of the story does he mention that it was the withdrawal of the Africans from the estates, their squatting on Crown lands; and their demanding higher wages that set the stage for the coming of the Indians so much so that they could receive a wage; save up their monies, and then begin to purchase land.

Nor should it be forgotten that it was the policies of Arthur Gordon, governor in 1866, that made it possible for Indians to buy land after he began to sell smaller plots and at reasonable prices. What Tikasingh does not say is that immediately after apprenticeship lands were priced so high and available plots so large that Africans could not acquire land for housing or for agriculture. In fact, the local planters intended that the Africans should remain wage-earners and never owners of anything. I wonder if the Africans were law-abiding and honorable the planters would have reduced the cost of the land and the size of the plots for sale.

While we are at it we ought to discourage the kind of scholarship that ascribes conscious intentionality to the Indians-that they came to Trinidad, ready to build a society, save their monies, and leave a legacy to those who came after them. In 1836 when John Gladstone, a planter in Guyana and Jamaica wrote Gillanders and Arbuthnot about the possibility of bringing Indians to the Caribbean to replace the enslaved Africans, they carefully assured Gladstone that the "Hill tribes... known by the name of Dhangurs, are looked down upon by more cunning natives of the plains, and they are always spoken of as more akin to monkeys than the man" (Fragments of Empire). The first group of Indians who came to the island was certainly a motley crowd of untoward characters. Under the circumstances, it would be better to get away from ascribing all of these lofty motives to our Indian brothers and sisters who were the last group to the island and who literarlly, did not know if they were coming or going.

One could say much more about this distorted approach to the telling of our history. I have demonstrated some of the inconsistencies and wrong-headedness of this tortuous and unruly book. Although it throws much light on the lives of Indian people during the period, it does not really make a convincing case that Trinidad should be considered an indentureship society. There can be no doubt that the Indians made an important contribution to the economy of the colony and that their culture and religion re-shaped its identity. However, when one realizes that during the nineteenth century Indians never constituted more than one-third of the society (they achieved this numerical status in 1881) and were not present at the foundational moment of the society-the French, the Spanish, the Africans played a much more important role in shaping the society-it seems disingenuous to claim that Trinidad and Tobago should now be considered an indentureship society.

Trinidad During the 19th Century suffers from an ideological bias that does not help the author make a convincing case. Facts, of course, are important but as Aime Cesaire acknowledged "the most important [thing] in history is not the facts, but the connections that bring them together, the law that governs them, [and] the dialectic that stirs them up." (Quoted in John Patrick, Free and French in the Caribbean, 2013). I am sure that this is the same law that J. J. Thomas referred to when he criticized James Anthony Froude's work on the West Indies (See J. J. Thomas's Froudacity, 1889). Tikasingh would have produced a much more readable and instructive book if he did not allow his Indo-centric biases to ruin his interpretation of the period. It is pity that this otherwise heroic effort is marred by so many unsustainable positions.

Professor Cudjoe is the Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature at Wellesley College. He can be reached at and @ProfessorCudjoe.

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